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Larry Coryell’s Autobiography, Improvising: My Life In Music

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JGT Contributor Joe Finn offers his thoughts on Larry Coryell’s autobiography, “Improvising: My Life In Music”.

I just finished re-reading the autobiography of Larry Coryell which is entitled “Improvising: My Life In Music”. There are tons of details in this book about the prolific and multi-faceted career of this great guitarist, and he is very open about the various personal problems he overcame through the years. His discography is extensive and spans six decades. Larry was quite eclectic in his musical tastes. He performed and recorded in several genres including rock, classical, Latin, fusion, jazz, and various hybrids of these styles. As a sideman, he recorded with everyone from Sonny Rollins and Ron Carter to the Fifth Dimension and Art Garfunkel. Coryell was never one to restrict himself to any one stylistic approach. He was the personification of musical diversity.

What really struck me in this narrative was the way Coryell wrapped up his story by writing about how important it is for a musician to adopt the proper attitude towards the music and towards his fellow musicians. He used the example of the well-known motion picture “Amadeus” which was a dramatization of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In this movie, Mozart is portrayed as someone with a very buoyant, upbeat personality who always remains very focused on his music despite the fact that he has a difficult relationship with his father which haunts him. The antagonist in the movie is the Italian composer Antonio Salieri who was an older and more well-established musical figure in Vienna when Mozart moved to that city. Salieri was a great composer of opera in the Italian style and dominated the Viennese music community once he was appointed as director of Italian opera by the Habsburg court.  Salieri is portrayed as being jealous of the prodigious musical abilities of the younger Mozart. Although he loves Mozart’s music he becomes bitter and envious and even goes out of his way to obstruct Mozart’s career opportunities and undermine his reputation. 

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Coryell also mentions an experience many musicians have had with hearing someone who we believe to be an inferior player and wondering how in the world he ever got that gig. This sort of envy and jealousy is only a hop, skip and a jump away from anger. This is no way to go through life and these are not productive emotions. These feelings can actually stand in the way of your own musical progress as well. Besides, what does it matter how a lesser player got a particular gig? How does this affect the music you are working on? In the case of the cinematic portrayal of Antonio Salieri, he allowed negativity and resentment to control his behavior and to hamper his own compositional efforts.

Coryell’s take on all of this amounts to some really astute advice. As musicians, we need to embrace the work of our fellow players. It’s better for us to be as supportive as we possibly can. We also need to remain positive and focus our energy on what we are seeking to achieve in our own music. All the repertoire development, the development of our personal improvisational concepts, the technical development, and the new compositions we come up with are what really matters. Our fellow musicians are doing the same things in their own fashion. We should rise above the temptation to be negative about the work of other players. Coryell concludes that we should strive to be more like Mozart and less like Salieri. He reminds us that criticism is already to be found everywhere in music anyway: the student is criticized by the instructor, the sideman is criticized by the bandleader and the bandleader is criticized by everyone; frequently in a very public manner. Coryell also confesses that he is his own harshest critic and really doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He held himself to his own standards of musical excellence. Criticism (by definition) is concerned with something that has already happened. You can’t allow someone’s displeasure with what you have done affect what you will do going forward. The autobiography of Larry Coryell is certainly full of stories about his amazing career and the various people he worked with over the years. And while this is obviously of great interest to other guitarists and fans of his music, some of the best parts of the book for this writer had to do with his insights and observations about life and how to live it. He encourages the reader to adopt the onward and upward “Mozart mentality” while guarding against slipping into the negativity of the “Salieri mentality”.

When he left this world in 2017 at age 73 Coryell was eulogized as one of the pioneers of jazz/rock fusion before that style even had a name. He was a tremendous technician and a true eclectic. He remained very focused on his work and career throughout his life. Coryell’s performance and recording credits read like a “Who’s Who” of the music business. His more than 60 albums as a leader stand as a monument to his creativity, longevity, and productivity. He continued touring the world and performing right up to the time of his passing with his final two performances being on Feb. 17 and 18, 2017 at Iridium in New York City. Larry Coryell died of natural causes on February 19, 2017. We will always remember the positive energy and virtuosity he brought to his music and his tireless work ethic. Elements of Coryell’s approach are captured in this remark he made in a 2014 interview with Florida Today: “I am fortunate to play music and I realized a long time ago that if you have a talent, you actually have to work harder at things. I teach my students that. Because if you have a natural talent it requires you to dig deep into it and understand the elements, know the basics, and know that indelible concept known as ‘taste.’”

So the “Godfather of Fusion ” is no more, but his music will continue to be a source of inspiration for musicians and listeners the world over for many, many years to come.


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